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When It's Time To Croak . . . .It's Time!
I remember . . . . I was visiting with my sister in Canada at
the time. It was late summer but it was still incredibly hot each
day, a stifling dry heat that you don't get in England. One of
the benefits of being an island nation I suppose. My sister had
previously promised to help a friend of hers to move house and
everything had at last fallen into place for that friend and this
was to be the big day. I wasn't in any way eager to go running
around being touristy and sight seeing and was just as happy to
be useful and go along and help. I don't need to go white water
rafting or jumping off a mountain to find something interesting.
It always seems to me that when you go away to become a stranger
in a strange land the most mundane of things can seem all new and
absorbing. I've spent my time on holidays in the past sweeping up
leaves in a 'yard', putting someone's 'trash' out or helping to
pull down a 'drywall' ceiling in need of replacement. A change is
as good as a rest they say so I was quite happy to tag along and
reassured my sister accordingly trying to allay her embarrassment
at having forced me into such an unusual holiday pass time. The
old place although pretty much stripped of its lived in character
by the time we arrived seemed to me to be the sort of home that
most people I knew would dream about. Admittedly it wasn't the
most structurally sound property around with a definite lean in
one direction and it was built opposite some rather run down
looking disused factory with a tall metal lightning attracting
chimney just across the road but it had character. It had
character aplenty. To me most importantly of all it had a porch.
To an Englishman the word porch perhaps conjures up images of a
small damp entranceway built around a front door but this was
more what I suppose we might call a veranda. Up a couple of steps
it was perhaps four feet in depth and extended the entire width
of the front of the house surrounded by a decorative smooth
topped wooden rail and covered by a shingled roof. I guess we
have all seen them on films at least, in the background to the
main action where people may be seen sat in a favourite rocking
chair in the heat of an evening sipping a cold lemonade or a
beer. A day or so earlier my sister and I had been invited guests
and were entertained to a light dinner before and after which in
the heat of the summers evening we all sat a good few hours
chatting and gently drinking cool drinks on the porch. As we
chatted and smoked and drank, lounging in comfortable chairs with
our feet up on the wooden rail, birds visited the nearby feeder
hung from the full, mature tree in the front yard and snatched a
quick supper before retreating to a roof top to sing a final
lullaby to the days fast sinking sun as the cool of the night
sneaked thankfully upon us. It isn't simply the ambience of that
very pleasant evening which has endeared me to 'porch living'. I
am sure that I would be just as happy to sit on one in snow,
rain, hail, day or night come what may, outside but at the same
time inside covered and safe and at home. I want one.
Moving that day they were going to leave it all behind. Helping to carry the pre packed boxes and pieces of furniture out to the 'U Haul' truck and moving freely from room to room in the slowly emptying house I began to see why. The rest of the house was past its best. The lean just visible to a scrutinizing eye from the outside was much more painfully obvious on the inside with sloping floors and doors that wouldn't close. As I quickly learned my way around mentally crossing off empty rooms I also began to appreciate the small size of the place. It wasn't very large at all and when we all stopped in the overcrowded kitchen to have a strangely foreign tinned 'lemonade' concoction it seemed almost impossible that the large family complete with dog and piano had found enough room in the place for them all to live. No wonder that despite their very meager finances moving out was a priority. It was also something of a major achievement. They had all worked real hard for this day. It was the culmination of their dream and they were moving out to a brand new home closer to where they worked on a new development in a beautiful rural setting near lakes and woods and meadows.
Dry throats eased with lemonades but still dripping with sweat in the heat of another roasting day a final dash about with bits and pieces and the truck was soon full and we were getting back into my sisters car to drive ourselves behind the truck to the new house.
The new house was by any Englishman's standards palatial. I could have fitted half of my little two bed roomed terraced street onto their newly turfed front lawn. Their double garage was easily the size of all the floor space in my house and I could have lived very comfortably in their 'dump it down there' basement. I was immediately convinced that it would have taken all my life savings to have been able to afford just the carpets on the ground floor. Everything was new and clean and creams and whites and beiges and luxurious and wonderful. As if money were no object the air conditioning had been left on by whoever had been there last. It was wonderfully cool to walk from room to room being given a quick tour so that we knew where to take which box when its destination was called out when the truck was unloaded. It didn't seem necessary to overdo the 'ooohs' and 'ahhhs' and expressions of admiration since they were down to earth hard working people and knew very well how lucky they were to have been able to scrape up the down payment with help from 'the family' to move 'up' like they were.
There was no avoiding it any longer and we somehow split into two groups. One group which included myself started unloading a lot of the truck contents to the unofficial triage on the garage floor while the other group with their better knowledge of who was who and what was going where ran boxes and bits and pieces and the stuff of their lives to appropriate rooms. It was hard work and it was very hot but it wasn't long before the truck was emptied and was on its way back to the old house for another load which gave those of us left behind time to clear the garage and then have a little walk around and get a feel for the new place and its surroundings. Out back there was a wooden deck. It matched the rest of the house in being by my standards absolutely enormous. How there were any trees left anywhere nearby seemed incredible in view of the amount of wood that had been used in its construction. You could have had a small game of football on it. Then there was the newly turfed yard and around that more trees had been sacrificed to make an unpainted picket fence in which at the bottom was a small gate. The gate lead out onto a roughly cut track that had been carved through what at that time was virgin grassland but which was apparently going to be built on in the future. This was a shame since the view at that time apart from a roving bulldozer, was beautifully unobstructed right over to the distant forests.
Walking around the side of the house and down a gentle grassy slope toward the front the ground underfoot was strangely springy and in places positively wet and here and there to my delight as I approached an escaping frog would leap away from my unintentional threat. Looking into the first of two or three rectangular holes in the ground about a foot deep and perhaps three feet long adjacent to the house I realised they were there to allow light into the basement windows. They had however been built of sheer stone blocks and it soon became obvious that anything small falling into them was doomed to remain there forever. Amongst the dozens of stiff parchment dry frog corpses there was the odd one or two still clinging to life trying to hide from the merciless deadly glare of the sun in the small gaps between the rough drainage stones at the bottom of the trap. Dropping to my knees I reached in and grasped at any sign of life I could find. One or two were so tightly wedged in between the stones clinging to life that I wondered if by dragging them out as I was I may have been doing them injury, but favoring possible injury over certain death I continued. When that first grave had been robbed of its life I moved to the next and the next until all survivors had been set loose on the wet grass to have, no matter how slender, at least a chance. I made some feeble attempt to draw others attention to the desperate battles for life that were going on about us there but everyone was rather busy excitedly unpacking their stuff. The Poltergeist films came briefly to mind as I thought of all the homes that were being built on that land. All they needed to do was put a wire mesh cover over the holes or maybe just prop up some sort of little wooden ladder!
At last the truck returned and I could forget such thoughts, as it was time for another burst of energy and sweating in the sweltering afternoon heat. I'm sure even though I didn't see any of it other stuff must have been broken that day too but it was with great embarrassment that a little carelessness on my part saw a badly loaded picture frame slide to the floor of the truck behind the table I was moving. The frame split and the glass cracked right across the picture of some treasured relative. I was tempted to say nothing but my conscience as always won out and I drew their attention to the breakage. They made light of it to make me feel better but I could see through their show to their distress and felt awfully guilty. I imagined them telling tales in years to come of the time they moved in to their new house and how it would have all gone perfectly if not for that crazy Englishman no one knew who'd come and smashed up some of their most treasured belongings!
Once everything was unloaded and more or less in a suitable resting place for the time being at least, it was time for the helpers to relax and be paid off with the promised pizza and beers supper. I'm sure the proud new owners would have preferred to have carried on unpacking until they had at least somewhere to sleep there that night but they made no mention of it and stopped to entertain their helper guests. In what seemed like no time at all someone was returning with supplies and everything was in hand with a new kitchen full of fast emptying boxes of different types of warm pizza and small bottles of cool beer. They had even made the effort of ordering one with no meat toppings especially for my sister who is a staunch vegetarian, which in that land at that time was something of a strange rarity.
It was a very pleasant end to the day relaxing on the deck, laughing and chatting, having a smoke, drinking a beer and watching the sun golden red in the sky sink slowly behind the nearby trees. The temperature began to drop to a more comfortable level and the beer and my full stomach began to have its affect indicating it was time to leave before I fell asleep on the deck where I sat. We expressed our thanks and made a few more, appropriate noises about how wonderful their new home was and tore ourselves away. My sister again said she was happy for me to drive since it was a change for her, and although I still didn't believe her I was happy to get in the driving seat. Slipping the gearshift into drive with my left hand in the near dark we headed away from the house and down the road to the little junction. We turned left and began to make our way down the recently laid tarmac road which lead past a stand of trees to our right, to the next junction where it joined the broad expanse of the main highway. As I drove along in the distance in the dimness outside of the glare of the headlights it looked as though the nearby trees had shed some of their leaves perhaps with an unusual early morning frost. A covering of leaves lay across the road for, as far as I could tell, a distance of perhaps fifty meters or so. Discussing the days activities with my sister and learning more about the people I had spent the day with I carried on driving rather sedately keeping near to the ludicrously low 20 mile an hour speed limit. With the windows open it was wonderful to feel and smell the cold damp of the night air drifting up from some nearby lake and hear the distant sounds of unfamiliar night animals calling and the scrunching noises coming from the wheels as we began to drive over the dry leaves.
I hadn't noticed the wind increasing but in the glare of the headlights the leaves in front of us seemed to be blowing about in the breeze. I think we both realised at about the same time. As my sister screamed in horror I simply gripped the steering wheel a bit tighter. In a heartbeat my mind had raced through the few available alternatives only to realise that under the circumstances there was nothing else to be done but keep going. It wasn't leaves on the road. It was frogs. Thousands and thousands of tiny jumping frogs all heading back to their spawning place as had their ancestors along this route for generations. No matter how loud my sister continued screaming it wasn't loud enough to drown out the sound of the scrunching and popping that was rising up from the wheels as we both wound up our windows squirming in our seats. I may have slowed down a little so as not to have to spend the morning cleaning the car but other than that there was nothing to be done. What choice did we have? Wait until the road was clear? Sleep in the car? My guilty conscience demands that I try and make everyone see that we had no choice and those two tracks of death and destruction we left behind us that night were not completely my fault. Whoever built those houses and that road has a good deal to answer for.
With the massacre done we carried on driving quickly and rather silently home. I don't think we've ever spoken of that dark secret since.
And what was it that just brought all this freshly to mind? I
was in the process of evicting a very large, VW Beetle like
woodlouse from my kitchen. A quick gentle prod and they will curl
into a defensive ball. It is then possible to pick them up
between finger and thumb without fear of hurting one of their
many tiny fragile legs. So it was with a little curled up ball in
the palm of my hand I was in my back garden. As gently as I could
I tipped my hand and let it roll on to the bare earth between
some plants. I paused just to make sure it was able to get back
on its feet without any assistance and as I paused my eye was
drawn to something glistening in the water at the edge of the
pond which is the jewel of my fifteen by thirteen foot, left to
its own devices, garden.
It isn't so much a garden as a yard really but it has improved a little over the years. When I first bought the house it was just full of rubble and earth piled up on great concreted over slabs. Gradually over the years some of that was put in skips while the rest was sneaked out unnoticed bit by bit in the rubbish bins a feet worthy of any world war two tunneling prisoner. It was during this evolution that I became aware of the amazing ability of nature to find a foothold for life in the most improbable of places. On lifting an old three feet long concrete paving slab, which was in the garden lying on some of the rubble, I could hardly believe my eyes. Somehow sneaked in beneath it sheltering were a couple of toads rudely awakened by my exertion. Despite the horrible mess that was my garden, in the middle of a concrete jungle these little chaps were managing to eke out a meager existence. I was impressed. I was very impressed.
Eventually I got round to bringing the level of the entire garden down to that of the path which made it much more normal and not long after, after having seen it lying unwanted in a nearby garden I was dragging my friend Dave along with his works van to pick up an old cast iron bath. I didn't realise until we were committed to moving it out of that person's garden how heavy they are. Heavy enough to almost make it necessary for Dave to walk to work the next day although thankfully the suspension held out on me Dave and the van and after a lot of struggling and a little digging I was the proud owner of a garden pond. I felt no embarrassment at the time, despite the fact that I am sure it was the only one in the whole neighborhood that was white enameled and complete with a plug and chrome taps! As time went by my sister gave me some oxygenating pondweed and some water snails and I got into the habit of sitting for hours on sunny days watching whatever was happening in the water. Never ceasing to be amazed by it, quite a lot often was happening. I'm no biologist and haven't the patience to go looking things up in books trying to identify them but if I was I'm sure I would have quite a list. Where they came from and how they got to be in that little tub of water I can only guess at but it really wasn't long before it was teeming with life. In fact perhaps 'seething' would be a better description. Something nasty was going on. Little long squirmy things seemed to be taking over. There were thousands of them squirming all over the surface of the water especially in the shallows where I had put in stones and earth to make sure anything falling in could climb out. I confess I was a little worried and even pulled one of them out on a stick to put it under an old school type microscope I had been given years before by my grandfather. It was like something from another world. A big head . . . long body . . . .and argghhhhh! It was writhing on the glass ten feet tall in front of me. It had to be mosquito larvae. What else could it possibly be? So there it was. I was growing malaria in my back garden. Obviously the water wasn't quite how a pond should be and was more like a stagnant puddle although in time it did seem to clear and the nasties took flight too. I got a bit too carried away at this point and decided I needed fish. Sitting watching the snails crawling along the underside surface of the water was all very well but imagine how interesting it would be to watch fish swimming about and maybe they would keep the mosquito larvae at bay too. Everyone else seems to have goldfish but that wasn't quite right for me somehow. They seemed too artificial or unnatural. I wanted real, ordinary, brown fish like you would get in a natural pond. So it was with this in mind that I drove to a nearby river armed with my nylon kitchen sieve and a large empty Nescafe coffee tin. Looking undoubtedly a little furtive since I knew this sort of thing wasn't allowed I wandered up and down the riverbank bizarrely clutching my sieve and tin until I found a suitable place. There I could scramble down to the waters edge and perhaps just within reach there were small shoals of fry dancing in the shallows. A quick lunge of my sieve and I had made a catch, which I immediately tried to knock off into the tin that I had quickly half filled with river water. They were tiny, tiny little fish which suited me fine because a bath isn't all that large and the smaller they are the more room they would have to swim about and feel free. Trouble was they were so small that one of them got stuck in a drip in the lip of the tin and I had an awful job getting it out. It kept on swimming around and around with the tip of my finger chasing around and around behind it! Eventually somehow with a careful flick of a finger nail it joined the rest of the little shoal in the tin and after having popped the lid on, trying to keep it as straight and level as possible I headed for home. They all made it even if it was for them a rather rough journey and they were soon living as far as I could tell quite comfortably in the bath but I now had visions of greater things. Right on queue a friend from work announced he had a preformed plastic pond he was getting rid of because it wasn't safe with small children around and wouldn't make a very good sand pit. Another friend had access to a van so to my eternal gratitude I was soon sitting in my garden trying to work out where to put it. It was much larger than the bath and was in fact going to pretty much fill one half of the garden but I was quite happy with that. The only problem was how to actually safely transfer all the life from the bath to the new pond especially since the bath was where the new pond was going to go.
The solution as has been the solution to so many of my garden and household problems, was the wheelie bin. I pulled it through into the back garden and tested it with the hosepipe to see whether or not it was watertight. The test was successful and proved that it was, so I set about using my washing up bowl to transfer the contents of the bath, weed, fish, snails and all into the bin. As the level in the bath fell I had to resort to using an old saucepan to scoop out the last little bit or as near to empty as I could get. The trouble with this plan was that I hadn't thought of the amount of earth and muck that would be stirred up in the water. By the time the bin was full what had been crystal clear water had been turned into a brown sludge. The poor old fish were all floating near the top their mouths protruding out of the water gasping for breath. All I was able to do was cross my fingers and hope for the best since they were going to have to stay in that bin at least overnight. The next job was the disposal of the old bath. I knew it was going to be impossible to lift it out on my own and really didn't want to have to bother anyone else so I decided that the best thing to do would be to smash it up where it lay. I'd seen this done on a TV DIY show where with one blow of a hammer it had fallen to pieces so I knew it could be done. The trouble was this bath was buried in the ground and certainly wasn't going to go without a fight. I won in the end but it took at least a half an hour of wielding a heavy lump hammer and by the time I had it in pieces I was temporarily as deaf as a post as were probably most of my neighbors. You'd be surprised how much like Big Ben a cast iron bath can sound when you are inside it hitting it with a five-pound lump hammer. Once that was out of the way all I had to do was the digging. It was agony. Just below the wonderfully fertile dark earth was what appeared to be a seam of the redest, stickiest, gooiest clay that I have ever seen. It was impossible to dig through it. I had to sort of try and slice bits off as though it was some huge subterranean block of cheese. It was hard work. And then of course there was my injury. Digging down three feet or so into the ground trying to be careful because I knew that somewhere nearby below there was a main sewer all of a sudden a small hole opened up before me. I was horrified and had visions of having to spend thousands of pounds on some emergency water board repair. Sinking down onto my hands and knees in the mud I held my breath trembling perhaps with the exertion of the digging as I peered into the hole. I peered and poked and prodded and eventually sighing with relief recognised the outline of a rusting bucket. Pulling the side of the bucket out of the ground as though it were a piece of tearing cardboard a small number of bottles half buried in the mud came into view. I carefully pulled at one and it came out of the ground completely intact. It was old, presumably at least as old as the house and it was certainly nothing like I had ever seen. Cleaned of clay the bottle looked a little green although it was supposed to be clear and it had C.C.KING embossed in the glass on one side. On the other again embossed in the glass was the figure of a small fat man with glasses holding a bottle, the words Trade Mark and Bristol around the base. The neck of the bottle was somehow pinched at two points and inside between these pinches was a glass ball. If maneuvered correctly the ball would either lodge in the neck preventing anything from pouring out or could be trapped by the pinched portion to allow pouring. I was fascinated and amazed when I successfully managed to dig another out of the ground with my hands. I got a little greedy and plunged my hands back into the hole looking for more. What I found was a broken bottle, which cleanly sliced my thumb open in the dirt. It wasn't too bad but it bled and bled and bled. I had to stop work for a least half an hour to let it clog up before I could carry on digging. Eventually after a lot of hard work and an awful lot of messing about putting it in the hole, taking it out, digging out, filling in, I had the blood stained pond liner in the ground almost but not quite level but good enough. I half filled it with tap water and against all the advice didn't let it stand for very long at all before the poor old fish had to go through a similar suffocating experience all over again. They all survived. In fact from then on they thrived, as did everything else, the snails and weed and everything. It was wonderful to sit out there and watch on a hot summers day. I even bought fish flakes and although I didn't make a habit of it I would occasionally feed them when I felt like it, to make them swim about and be active so I had something to watch. And not to be bored in the evenings, I installed a string of green lights around the garden at the base of the wall behind the trees to give the garden a fairy green glow. It works and is very relaxing. I've spent hours some nights sat there 'being green' watching to see what ripples on the water will give away the presence of some feeding fish or unseen watching frog or toad.
They grew quite big those little tiddlers, the biggest being about four inches long and despite my worries when I would often see neighborhood cats sat peering into the water they obviously knew when to hide and how to survive. The neighborhood cats are the scourge of the neighborhood wildlife and as a result I never see any birds in my garden. They will also toy with a toad or a frog. I lost count of the number of times my friend Dave would call me up to come and save some poor mauled toad that one of his cats had brought home to play with. In fact I am not sure that it wasn't just one toad locked into some repeating cycle of capture, torture, salvation, release, capture, torture, etc. Toads, frogs, even a fish on one occasion. A fancy black one with big eyes and a long flowing tail, presumably someone's pride and joy plucked out of some ornamental garden pond. How it survived for as long as it did I will never know although it was obviously doomed. I gave it a decent burial once it had started floating upside down.
I still suspect that a cat may have had something to do with it but I can't see how unless one is rotting at the bottom of the pond, but all of a sudden everything went wrong. Somehow the water went bad and everything except the plants began to die. All the snails disappeared and the fish began to get sick with some fungal infection. They all died one by one and as they did I fished them out and buried them in the earth. I felt guilty that I had interfered with their destiny and had unwittingly inflicted that gruesome end upon them and vowed that I would endeavor never again to interfere with the natural way of things. From that moment on I have tried to be less interfering but more encouraging. Against the garden wall hidden beneath the evergreen trees I have propped up lots of old bricks in a way that may give some shelter to a sad homeless toad. Certainly if I see a toad or frog in a vulnerable position or in danger I will relocate it to my garden but I have installed a little wooden step at the bottom of the garden which will enable them all to leave via the back lane as and when they may wish. I wasn't sure that this wasn't just some fanciful idea on my part until whilst being green on one rainy night I noticed movement in the dark beneath the gate at the end of the garden. Sure enough in the rain a toad was climbing purposefully down my wooden step and once on the path strode determinedly straight toward the steps that lead down to the patio. Here he patrolled along the top of the retaining wall before turning on his heels and striding back off down the garden, up the wooden step, back out into the lane and gone. I'd witnessed a toad, hunting. I knew exactly what it was doing. That top of the retaining wall along which he had patrolled was often in the rain the place where worms would slither and slide presumably trying to escape a drowning. I'd noticed this on a couple of occasions and apparently so had this toad. Brilliant. Here was proof that any rescuees released in my garden really could leave whenever they wished so any worries I'd had about overstocking and food shortages were unfounded. It is difficult to convey the pleasure I can get from opening my patio doors quickly and unexpectedly to hear the splash of the water as some startled frog or toad leaps to safety.
So here I was pausing while a woodlouse got
safely to all of its feet and my eye was drawn to something
glistening in the water at the edge of the pond. Was it? Could it
really be? In my eagerness to look I almost ended up in the water
with it but ..... yes! It was true! Despite all that man has
done, in the midst of this concrete jungle in my little oasis
there was a small handful of frogspawn nestling against some
Yeeeeessss!!!! I'm expecting!!
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